Almost no one predicted 2020 would pan out the way it did. But as history shows, humanity is able to overcome over crisis it faces through sheer grit, courage and innovation. In their recently-published book, Sailing Through a Storm: Making a Crisis Work for You, TN Hari, Chief People Officer, BigBasket, and Sanjay Swamy, Managing Partner, Prime Venture Partners, looked at learnings we can draw from the COVID-19 pandemic and draw out crisis management lessons that individuals, entrepreneurs and companies should know. CNBC-TV18’s Shivani Khandekar spoke to the duo in an email interview. Edited excerpts. Q: You've mentioned how crisis protection is mostly about dealing with an issue before it snowballs. What, in your opinion, differentiates leaders who don't crumble in the face of such adversities and those who do? Hari: Much of the success of crisis management depends on quickly controlling the narrative around it. The strange aspect of a crisis is that irrespective of whether or not you could have prevented it, you would be judged by how you respond as soon as a crisis breaks out.
Those initial moments and the days that follow are critical. Be honest and accurate. Do not overpromise. Do not prevaricate or obfuscate. Leaders who deal with adversities successfully often demonstrate character and courage – the character to act honestly irrespective of the personal consequences and the courage to act in spite of being terribly scared.
Swamy: As Hari says, crisis management is a core skill we all need to deal with - and there are three areas to focus on - prevention, early management and controlling the narrative. In our lives as investors, entrepreneurs or just as human beings, we unknowingly deal with crises on a daily basis - some bigger than others. A well-prepared mind and investing in crisis management in advance (for instance, not waiting for a fire to have a fire department) is key to success - but also with experience comes the ability to identify signs that a crisis is likely to snowball and making acting decisively is crucial. Q: What lessons can entrepreneurs, startup founders take from unexpected events, such as this pandemic? Hari: Entrepreneurs are human beings too and while they may have the ability to deal with some unexpected events, their businesses can be brought down by some other unexpected events whatever they may do. The lesson is to be optimistic, think on one’s feet, and do whatever it takes to bring things back under control; and not worry a great deal about what is not in one’s control and pick up the pieces and start afresh. Swamy: Despite the pandemic, a large number of startups today are way better off now than they were at the start of the pandemic - many have discovered smarter ways of customer acquisition, lower cost of serving customers and faster growth. Additionally, several new opportunities have been created because the pandemic has changed some behaviour in a definitive way. Yes, a few businesses have been temporarily halted and in rare cases destroyed, but for the most part, apart from the tragic circumstances, this pandemic has done for entrepreneurship especially tech startups) what several billions of marketing dollars and 5 years could not have achieved. For entrepreneurs, a crisis is an opportunity - almost always - and when such moments arise, founders should instantly jump at them - although it may be disruptive to what their original business plan was. Q: Ahilyabai Holkar, one of the finest female rulers in history finds mention in your book as the Maratha warrior who overcame a gender disadvantage to sustain her empire. What would be your message to young, ambitious women as they scramble to make space for themselves in a just society? Hari: Frankly, most crises in the world, if examined carefully, can be traced to unbridled masculine ambition, greed and need for power. So, what the world needs is an acknowledgement and adoption of some of the feminine leadership traits such as collaboration, caring and warmth. Leaders like Ahilyabai Holkar and Akbar, among many others, demonstrated the perfect blend of masculine and feminine leadership traits. Message to ambitious leaders (men or women) would be to embrace a combination of the feminine and masculine leadership styles. Swamy: I personally think women make great leaders - and often have a clarity of thought that is a core requirement of decision making. In several parts of the world - notably entrepreneurship - women have shown that they can succeed as equals. To me, gender is a non-issue when we make hiring decisions or investment decisions. Q: How can corporates and the government leverage these crisis management tactics to rebound from adverse situations? Hari: One of the most powerful crisis management tactics is to communicate honestly and earn the trust of all the stakeholders (employees and citizens). When there is acceptance, trust and faith in the leadership, then rebounding from a crisis is so much easier. Corporates and governments can also use a crisis as the proverbial ‘burning platform’ to drive change and a wave of innovation. Swamy: One of the hardest issues with decision making for corporates and governments often is that people cannot empathise with the issues being faced by others. This is what leads to unhappiness. One benefit of such widespread crises is that everybody is impacted - and this instantly ensures empathy. I would say the government of India in particular has been trying to drive its Digital India initiatives as a means to reach the masses efficiently, and this pandemic has shown that whether it is for payment of pensions and benefits, collections of payments, etc. thank goodness for digital platforms. Q: Do you think India handled the COVID 'crisis' well? Why did some countries bounce back from it so quickly? Hari: Considering the complexity and diversity of India, we believe the government handled it well. It is not fair to compare ourselves with countries whose entire population is less than one large metropolis in India. Beyond this general statement, we are frankly not technically competent to draw comparisons or make judgements. Swamy: I think at the start of the crisis, if you had told me in December that India’s numbers would be what they are in comparison to the US numbers, I would’ve said, let’s fast-forward to December. As painful as it has got to be for those who have suffered first-hand, I for one am relieved that we are where we are. Financial situations aside, people have got ample access to essential services and the healthcare system has held up incredibly well. I cannot imagine how we can even think of thanking our healthcare providers for their yeoman service during the year. We are in decent shape and I hope the next year will see a rapid recovery for all. Q: Would you advocate for hiring of full-time crisis managers by corporates? If so, what should be the requisite - sound wisdom or just education? Hari: We would not recommend hiring someone exclusively for managing a crisis. A few individuals in the management team need to be identified, depending on the nature of possible crises, who would take charge when a crisis strikes. A crisis is often a stray incident that hurts a company’s reputation and has the potential to cause financial damage. This individual who has been identified in advance then leads the response on behalf of the organization. More than education it is the character and wisdom needed to control and mitigate the crisis that should be looked at when identifying the individual. Swamy: Crisis management is core to every function and to every employee on the team. Today, companies have had to deal with a crisis that hasn’t hit their company only, it has hit every company. Companies however have to be ready to handle crises, both internally and externally - whether it is a database being hacked, or an employee’s departure or any other situation. Crisis management is truly a core competency at all levels, and key to sailing through a storm! Q: Meena Ganesh, Portea Medical's Founder & CEO remarks in the book that loss of a loved one is just as big a crisis as the pandemic. India has nearly seen one lakh forty-five thousand deaths due to COVID-19 so far. Meaning, a lakh and forty-five families have been grieving the loss of their loved ones. How does one cope with this? Hari: There is an interesting concept called the ‘hedonic treadmill’ or the ‘hedonic adaptation’ which is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life. So, in some ways nature has already equipped us to deal with extreme adversity. Life is too beautiful a gift to be wasted away pining or grieving for ever. Some degree of spirituality and a sense of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ can mitigate adversity and help one to bounce back from any kind of adversity. Swamy: The tragic nature of this pandemic can just never be quantified - and those who have lost near and dear ones must surely feel deeply robbed by this year. I had a friend and entrepreneur who told me he lost both parents - there is nothing one can do to call this year progress to that person. But we all have to move forward in life and that is in fact the only way to deal with things. Each person has their own way and giving them the space and recognizing that they have the right to grieve in their own way is probably the only empathetic way to respond. Q: As we approach a new year, and possibly a COVID-free world, what are some skills which can make people rebound from crises faster, in the new 'post-COVID world'. Hari: COVID has triggered a few mega trends many of which are mostly here to stay – online education, online entertainment and more hours spent on the internet, remote working, and a big push for online commerce are just a few. Skills that can help people rebound during times of rapid change will always be a combination of ‘optimism and resilience’, ‘first principles thinking’, and an ability to ‘learn and adapt’ Swamy: On the positive side for entrepreneurs in the technology space, the world has moved forward 5 years - no ifs ands or buts about it. Every consumer segment - whether from small children to the elderly can be impacted positively via the use of technology - whether for education or for remote monitoring. Every business segment, including the government, is leveraging technology like never before. Whether you are an existing entrepreneur or an aspiring one - there is simply no time to wait anymore. The bottom line from COVID is that anyone who shuns the digital world is going to be unemployable and will struggle to be productive in society - so it's critical for everyone to get digitally savvy, and perhaps therein lies the biggest opportunity coming out of COVID.